Roman bath discovered in York

Roman, Roman bath. York
The remains of a Roman bath have been discovered in York in northern England.

Archaeologists made the find while excavating ahead of construction of the new City of York Council Headquarters. York (then called Eboracum) was an important trading center in Roman times. So important, in fact, that it had more than one bath. The image above is from the basement of the Roman Bath pub, where a small museum shows off the remains of another bath.

Based on coins and pottery found at the site, the newly discovered bath dates from the late second and early third centuries AD. The site will be open to the public for free this weekend.

Unlike many Roman cities, York continued to be important mercantile and religious center in the later Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods. The Yorkshire Museum exhibits a huge collection of Viking artifacts from an earlier excavation.

Public bathhouses were very popular in Roman culture. They included cold, warm, and hot pools and places for relaxation and socializing. The best preserved example is at the appropriately named city of Bath, an easy day trip from London.

Prehistoric stone circle discovered in Yorkshire

cairn, stone circleA stone circle that was once part of a prehistoric cairn has been discovered by a group of amateur archaeologists on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, England.

A cairn is a large pile of stones that marked the grave of an important individual in prehistoric times. These stones were often taken away by later farmers for building walls or cottages, and sometimes all that’s left is a circle of stones from the base, as is the case here. The team says the cairn measures 27 by 24 feet. It would have been pretty high back in its glory days.

One stone had a man-made circular impression archaeologists call a cup mark. These are found all over prehistoric Europe singly or in groups, but nobody knows what they mean.

The UK countryside is full of ancient remains. When I was hiking along Hadrian’s Wall and the East Highland Way I brought along Ordnance Survey maps not only to find my way but because many prehistoric sites are marked on them. I passed stone circles, Anglo-Saxon ring forts, crumbled castles, and much more. Take these maps along to make your walk through the countryside a walk through history.

The Yorkshire team has made numerous discoveries in recent months. Archaeology is understaffed and underfunded, and dedicated groups of amateurs help take up the slack. Archaeological societies exist in many towns throughout the world and are a great way to learn about the past. While members are amateur in the sense that they don’t make their living as archaeologists, they’re often well trained and knowledgeable. This is important so that when they make their discoveries they don’t harm the very sites they are trying to study and preserve.

[Photo of Mölndal cairn in Sweden courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No image of the Ilkley Moor cairn is available. It’s not as well preserved as the Mölndal cairn.]

Roman child’s footprints discovered in northern England

Roman, roman
Every now and then an archaeological discovery makes me realize just how much we have in common with our ancestors.

Just this morning I was telling my son to keep out of the mud. I didn’t want his shoes to get dirty, you see, and didn’t give much thought to the footprints he left behind.

Two thousand years ago in Roman Britain a child was hopping or skipping beside the road. Archaeologists working in Yorkshire found the kid’s footprints–a right one followed by two left prints–during an excavation in 2009. They’ve only now been made public. Sadly, the archaeologists weren’t able to preserve the prints, but were at least able to photograph these ghostly traces of the past.

The spot was the location of an old stream near Healam Bridge Roman fort, which some researchers believe may have been the home of the mysterious “lost” Ninth Legion, which vanished without a trace from Roman records after 117 AD. In addition to the footprints, archaeologists found an industrial estate that supported the fort, where they uncovered the foundations of buildings, a millstone, pottery, glass, coins, and even the skeleton of a sacrificed horse placed under the foundations of a building for good luck. They also found evidence that the Romans wore socks with their sandals.

The dig was sponsored by the Highways Agency, which has posted photos of some of the finds on their Flickr site.

[Images courtesy of Northern Archaeological Associates Ltd]

Roman, roman

Top five best castles of Yorkshire


Yorkshire has always been a troubled region of England. It was on the front line of fighting between the English and the Scots and saw lots of action in the English Civil War, when the forces of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell fought the Royalists supporting King Charles I. Because of this, many castles dot the landscape, including some of the most magnificent the country has to offer. Here are five of the best.

York Castle
Dominating the skyline of the city of York is this unusual fortification, often referred to as Clifford’s Tower. The first fort here was built by the Normans in 1068 and was a motte-and-bailey castle. A wooden stockade and tower sat atop a large artificial mound. Around the base of the mound was another enclosure protected by a moat and wooden stockade. Motte-and-bailey castles were cheap and quick to build and provided sufficient protection against the rather basic siege techniques of the time. The Normans threw up hundreds of these in the years immediately following their conquest of England.

In 1190 the castle sheltered the city’s Jewish population during an antisemitic riot started by a man who owed money to a Jewish moneylender and didn’t feel like paying it back. The castle warden let the Jews hide there, but when he went out to talk to the mob the Jews wouldn’t let him back in, fearing the townsmen would swarm in with him. The warden lost patience and called out the militia, which besieged the castle. The tower caught fire and the Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the mob. About 500 people died.

Like many motte-and-bailey castles, the wooden tower was eventually replaced with stone, in this case an odd design of four semicircles. The rounded walls helped deflect shots from catapults and in 1644 proved useful against cannon too. Local Royalist forces held out against a Parliamentarian army for several weeks before finally surrendering when it became apparent that no help was coming.

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Raby Castle
Unlike most English castles, this one’s still lived in. It’s been the residence of the Lord Barnard since 1626 but actually was built by the Neville family in the 14th century. In 1569, seven hundred knights gathered in the great hall to plot the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I and install a Catholic monarch. The Rising of the North, as it was called, was quickly crushed, and many of its leaders executed. The Neville family saw their castle and lands confiscated and the property was eventually transferred to the Barnard dynasty.

While this imposing castle and its beautiful grounds are private property, it is still possible to visit Raby Castle at certain times of the year. The rooms have decorations from various periods and include many fine works of art from famous artists such as Teniers the Younger and Van Dyck. Make sure to take a stroll in the 200 acre deer park, with its own herds of deer that have been grazing here since Norman times.

Raby Castle is actually in County Durham, but it’s a quick drive from York and too good to miss.

Bolton Castle
Less grandiose than Raby Castle, the castle at Bolton is more geared towards defense. Finished in 1399, it looks like a solid block of stone with four square towers. While the walls were good for keeping people out, they were also good for keeping people in. Elizabeth I kept her Catholic rival Mary Queen of Scots here as a prisoner.

During the English Civil War the owner of the castle supported the king. Most of Yorkshire was Royalist, like the city of York itself, so the region became a prime target for the armies of Parliament. A Parliamentary force besieged the castle but, despite having artillery, weren’t able to take it. The defenders held out for a year and only gave up in 1645 after running out of food. The scars from the cannonballs can still be seen.

Skipton Castle
Another strong fortress is Skipton Castle. Like York and Bolton castles, it also withstood a siege during the English Civil War, but this time for three years. Looking at it you can see why. It started out in 1090 as a motte-and-bailey, but soon developed into a massive stone stronghold. So massive, in fact, that nobody dared attack it until those pesky Parliamentarians decided to try their luck in 1643. Not even cannons could break the walls and three years later the Royalist garrison was still holding out. All other Royalist resistance in Yorkshire had crumbled and the defenders finally agreed to an honorable surrender.

Despite its ill treatment at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s men, Skipton Castle remains one of the best preserved castles in England. The fabulous gatehouse, towers, and Tudor-era courtyard really give a feel for what it was like in the not-so-good old days. It’s all very impressive, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck there for three years!

Ripley Castle
Like Raby Castle, Ripley Castle is a private residence but open to the public. This stately home been in the Ingilby family since it was built in 1309. It’s amazing they managed to hold onto it considering they remained committed Catholics when England became Protestant. One Ingilby was executed in 1586 for inciting a Catholic rebellion. Other members of the family were important members in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics. The family played a very dangerous political game but they were good at it. They even had a secret room for their priest to hide in so nobody knew they were still keeping the old faith. They also had a hand in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up James I and all of Parliament and make England Catholic again. Even after the plot failed and Guy Fawkes was executed they still managed to wriggle their way out of trouble and keep their castle.

Ripley Castle is famous for its beautiful gardens and deer park as well as its historic interior. You’ll see a room that used to be a British navy ship, a sumptuous dining room, and take in sweeping views of the countryside from the drawing room. The library is much as it was when Jane Ingilby held Oliver Cromwell at gunpoint and took him prisoner. Cromwell escaped, of course, yet despite him leading the Parliamentary forces to victory and taking power, the family still kept their castle!

York: capital of England’s north

So far my journey through Yorkshire has been one of small towns and moorlands, yet the most popular destination in Yorkshire is the city that gives the shire its name–York. No trip to the north of England would be complete without checking out this historic city.

A brief look at York’s long history
Like many English cities, York’s origins are lost in prehistory. It’s first recorded in the late first century AD as the Roman city of Eboracum. It became an important trading center and it was here that the legions proclaimed Constantine emperor before he went on to convert the empire to Christianity. Some of the original city walls can still be seen.

After the Roman legions left around 410 AD, York remained a political and religious center under the Angles until the Vikings took it over in 866. Contrary to popular opinion, the Vikings weren’t all seafaring raiders. In England they came to settle, once they got their fill of looting and burning that is. Known as Jórvik, it became one of the biggest cities in the Viking world. In the Middle Ages its economic and religious influence continued to grow and it remains one of the biggest cities in the north of England today. The Yorkshire Museum gives a good rundown of the city’s history.

Five things to do in York
1. Visit the Minster. York’s cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. The minster is one of the most grandiose cathedrals built in the Middle Ages. Much of it dates to the 13th century but there are some older and newer bits as well. Soaring Gothic architecture, weird gargoyles, and beautiful stained glass windows make this a place you can stare at for hours.

2. Wander the streets. York’s medieval center still retains some of its historic charm. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old, and the winding little streets give you a feel for past times, minus the Black Death and open sewers. Keep a sharp eye out for carved wooden figures that used to act as neighborhood signs in the days when most people were illiterate.

3. Vikings! The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of the most popular attractions in northern England. Set atop an archaeological excavation of the Viking city, you can see foundations of Viking buildings under a glass floor before hopping on a ride that takes you through a village of animatronic Vikings. No, I’m not kidding, and it’s as silly as it sounds. Anyone over ten will probably feel a little embarrassed by the whole show and leave knowing only slightly more about the Vikings than when they arrived. Your kids will love it, though, especially when they spot the constipated Viking groaning in the outhouse.

%Gallery-105370%4. Walk the walls. York has one of the best preserved medieval walls in England, and you can walk on all of it. The walk goes for two miles around the historic heart of York and is only interrupted in one small section. The walk takes you past some of the city’s highlights like the Minster as well as quieter residential areas.

5. Visit the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. Medieval churches and streets are a dime a dozen here in historic Europe, but how often do you get to see a medieval guildhall? As international commerce rose in the late Middle Ages, trade guilds became more important. Eventually their power displaced rivaled even the king’s and led to the capitalist society we have today. Merchants have been meeting in this timber-framed mansion for 650 years to plan voyages and explore new trade routes. On display are some of the treasures they brought back, as well as a letter to Henry VIII complaining that one of their ships got attacked by pirates!

There’s also a beautifully preserved Norman castle with a grim history. I’ll be talking about that in my next post in the series–Castles of Yorkshire.

Shopping in York
York’s labyrinthine streets are filled with shops selling everything from local produce (I highly recommend the cheese) to toys and fashion. It’s hard to give a breakdown of all there is to buy, since pretty much everything is available. Visit York has a good online shopping guide where you can search by subject. One thing I noticed was that it has one of the biggest selections of used and antiquarian bookshops of any English town I’ve visited. There are plenty of antique shops too, but they’re only for those with a healthy bank account.

Drinking and Dining in York
There’s no shortage of good eats in Yorkshire. Once again Visit York has a good online guide. My favorite was Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, which for almost a century has been serving up great tea, scones, and desserts in elegant Art Deco surroundings. It’s usually packed, though, so be prepared to wait in line. They have a shop too. York has a large number of restaurants for all budgets and there’s a good selection of pubs serving Yorkshire real ales. I recommend Mars Magic by Wold Top Brewery and Black Sheep Ale by Black Sheep Brewery. Both are dark, rich, full beers that make your average lager look and taste thinner than air.

Pluses and minuses
York is a great destination for shopping, dining, and sightseeing, but try to go off-season. The city center is incredibly crowded during the summer, and most weekends no matter what the time of year. This is one of the most touristy spots in England, and lacking the hugeness of London it can feel a bit cramped. It’s still well worth a visit, though.

So if you’re traveling through England’s north, don’t skip its greatest city!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: The castles of Yorkshire!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.